This article was produced and financed by University of Bergen

tian Suppersberger Hamre can tell what persons of the middle ages ate, by studying skeletons. (Photo: Eivind Senneset/Copyright: UiB)
tian Suppersberger Hamre can tell what persons of the middle ages ate, by studying skeletons. (Photo: Eivind Senneset/Copyright: UiB)

Skeletons reveal history

Using skeletons, biological anthropologist Stian Suppersberger Hamre studies the diet and travels of Scandinavians 1,000 years ago.

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University of Bergen

The University of Bergen is located in Bergen, Norway. Six faculties cover most of the traditional university disciplines. Within the faculties are included 60 different specialised departments, centres and institutes.

“Migration is not a modern phenomena in Norway nor Scandinavia. Norwegian cities were populated by people from different parts of the country and with immigrants from Europe and probably even further away,” says postdoctoral fellow Stian Suppersberger Hamre at the Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion at the University of Bergen (UiB).

Using DNA and isotope analysis, Suppersberger Hamre has studied the composition of populations in Norwegian towns in the research project Immigration and mobility in mediaeval and post-mediaeval Norway.

A history of food

In his new project for which he has applied for funding, Suppersberger Hamre wants to look at the composition of the populations in Bergen, Århus and Gothenburg in mediaeval and early modern times. By doing analysis of skeletons, he can find out, among other things, what food people consumed.

“Food does not only show us what people ate, and what types of animals where available, but it also says a lot about the culture and social circumstances at a certain time in history,” says Suppersberger Hamre.

He explains that an individual person’s diet can reveal what social status they had, or what religion they belonged to. The diet can also reveal where the person was born, and where he moved during his lifetime. In addition, it can reveal if the migrant integrated new customs and food traditions while traveling to new places.

“Bergen used to be a huge trade town and people migrated from several places and brought along a lot of customs and languages. There is little doubt that Bergen was a very complex town during the middle ages,” Suppersberger Hamre says.

Teeth and ribs reveals diet

To get an idea of the composition of people and what food individuals ate in the middle ages, Suppersberger Hamre analyses isotopes from teeth and ribs from skeletons. These analyses show where the person was born and stayed during his lifetime, and what food he consumed.

“It is possible to get quite detailed information of what the persons ate, like different kinds of meat, marine animals, grains and vegetables,” says Suppersberger Hamre.

“By analysing skeletons it is possible to recreate individual life stories from the Middle Ages.”

Showing personal history

Suppersberger Hamre is one of the invited speakers during the Christie Conference 2016, where he is going to illustrate an individual´s migration story in 13th century Bergen.

In September 2016, the Bergen City Museum will host an exhibition about the pre-modern population of Norway. Model makers from England have made reconstructions of three pre-modern individuals, based on their skulls. By knowledge of musculature and skeletons, computer skills, gene information and the use of 3D printers, it has been possible to make true copies of the persons.

“In addition to the models, their individual histories will be told,” explains the researcher.

Completing the picture

Suppersberger Hamre gets access to the skeletons from museums and archaeological excavations. He also use archaeological and written historical sources.

“By combining data from skeletons and other historic materials, the historical picture of the middle ages and how ordinary people lived gets more complete,” says Stian Suppersberger Hamre.

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